The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories
By Tom Zappala and Ellen Zappala
Peter E. Randall Publisher, 2010
List Price: $38.00
Thanks in part to the Honus Wagner card, one of the rarest collectibles in any sport, the T206 set has achieved an almost mythical status over the past century among baseball card collectors. Put out by the American Tobacco Company from 1909-11, the cards were inserted in various cigarette brands as promotional items. Now, 100 years later, these tiny ads that were given away for free are highly sought by collectors willing to pay princely sums for the portraits of Hall of Famers in good condition. A well-kept Wagner went for $2.8 million at auction in 2007.
Most collectors will never even glimpse a Wagner card, which owes much of its value to The Flying Dutchman’s demand that it be pulled from the set. Only about 50 of these cards are known to exist today. Others, however, even among the 38 Hall of Fame players included, aren’t nearly so hard to come by. On any given day a buyer could find dozens listed for sale on eBay. Owning a Doc Casey or Vive Lindaman might not carry the same cachet as the Wagner, Tris Speaker, or Christy Mathewson, but they’re still a piece of history.
Tom Zappala found himself drawn to the set after acquiring a Lena Blackburne card nearly 20 years ago. An infielder for the Eastern League’s Providence Grays at the time the T206 set was released, Blackburne was a .214 career hitter whose bigger contribution to the game was the rubbing mud for baseballs he discovered near the Delaware River. It’s still used today.
Blackburne’s history so intrigued Zappala that he and his wife Ellen began researching other players from the set. The result was “The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories,” a coffee table book released this spring. Reproduction images of all 524 cards appear, along with short biographies of every player.
The artwork is one of the features that has made the set so alluring all these years. The painted portraits beautifully capture the likeness of young men in their primes. Other cards contain “action shots” of players hitting or pitching. Many players have multiple images. Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Joe Tinker both had four different cards.
Such an honor wasn’t restricted to the greats. Men like Joe Lake and Admiral Schlei were included on three different cards each. Both can be found in the Commons chapter of the book. Zappala broke the players down into Hall of Famers, Overlooked by Cooperstown?, the Uncommons, the Bad Boys (think Black Sox scandal and others suspected of throwing games), the Minor Leaguers, and the Commons.
Many of the players included in the T206 set were in the minor leagues at the time the cards were first distributed. Of this bunch, 30 never reached the majors. The Zappalas unearthed some details on their careers, but for many of them personal data, such as birth and death dates, remain a mystery. Perhaps some of this information will come to light for a future edition. (If anyone knows where and when Molly Miller came into and left this world, the Zappalas would be glad to hear from you.)
The book wraps up with a chapter by Joe Orlando, whose company authenticates and grades sports memorabilia. Orlando explains the differences between the different grades, which range from Poor to Mint. He also talks about the different backs of the cards, which is where the advertising for the various cigarette brands was found. The backs, like the players and the condition, impact the value, as certain brands were more or less common.
“The T206 Collection” is beautifully done, with a fine mix of art and text. The cards are fascinating in themselves, but the history of the players—particularly the Uncommons—makes this a book worth reading and not simply paging through. Anyone who enjoys digging into the game’s rich history will find some fascinating nuggets among the biographies. You may even be inspired to seek out a T206 of your own.
James Bailey is a former associate editor at Baseball America. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.